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Great Britain has worst rate of child alcohol consumption in world, report finds



Great Britain has worst rate of child alcohol consumption in world, report finds

Great Britain has the worst rate of child alcohol abuse worldwide, and more than half of children in England, Scotland and Wales have drunk alcohol by the age of 13, according to a report.

The study, one of the largest of its kind by the World Health Organization (WHO), looked at 2021-22 data on 280,000 children aged 11, 13 and 15 from 44 countries and regions who were asked about alcohol, cigarettes and vape usage.

The analysis found that Great Britain had a significant issue with underage alcohol abuse. More than a third of boys (35%) and girls (34%) had drunk alcohol by the age of 11, and by 13, 57% of girls and 50% of boys in England had consumed alcohol – the highest rate included in the analysis.

More than half of girls (55%) and boys (56%) in England from higher-income families said they had drunk alcohol in their lifetime, compared with 50% of girls and 39% of boys from lower-income backgrounds.

The analysis also found that girls aged 13 and 15 in Great Britain were drinking, smoking and vaping more than boys the same age. Forty per cent of girls in England and Scotland had vaped before 15, and did so at a higher rate than countries such as France and Germany.

Graphic: smoking among 15-year-old girls

About 30% of girls aged 15 and 17% of boys the same age had vaped in the past 30 days in England, according to the research, and at a higher rate than other countries including Ireland, Canada, Denmark, Norway and Portugal.

The study included data from more than 4,000 children in England, and about 4,000 in Scotland and Wales.

Dr Hans Kluge, the WHO regional director for Europe, said: “The widespread use of harmful substances among children in many countries across the European Region – and beyond – is a serious public health threat.

“Considering that the brain continues to develop well into a person’s mid-20s, adolescents need to be protected from the effects of toxic and dangerous products. Unfortunately, children today are constantly exposed to targeted online marketing of harmful products, while popular culture, like video games, normalises them.”

Dr Jo Inchley, international coordinator for the study from the University of Glasgow, said the results of the study were “concerning” as it showed that the UK had one of the worst rates of underage drinking and smoking across the world.

“We’re seeing really high levels of early initiation into drinking amongst boys and girls in England,” Inchley said. “Why that’s much higher than other countries, I don’t really know, but it’s certainly something we need to look at and address.

“The big concerns are around vaping, but also there’s some evidence that alcohol use might be going up again, amongst girls in England in particular.”


Dr Katherine Severi, chief executive of the Institute of Alcohol Studies, said that although youth drinking was in decline, “The UK is one of the heaviest drinking nations in the world, and it’s clearly concerning that England has some of the highest rates of children drinking in Europe.

“People tend to have this perception that introducing children to moderate drinking is a good way of teaching them safer drinking habits. This is untrue. The earlier a child drinks, the more likely they are to develop problems with alcohol in later life.”

A government spokesperson said: “The health advice is clear: smoking, vaping and underage drinking can be damaging for young people and their development. That is why there are age restrictions on the sale of these products.

“As a government, we are creating the UK’s first smoke-free generation. Our landmark tobacco and vapes bill will make it an offence to sell tobacco products to anyone born after 1 January 2009 and includes powers to limit flavours, packaging and displays of vapes to reduce the appeal to children.”

This article was amended on 25 April 2024 to reflect that the source data on which the WHO study was based included England, Scotland and Wales, but not Northern Ireland. As such, references to the findings being UK-wide have been removed.

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